Welcome back! In my last column I talked about the immense value of using Story Grid’s Scene Analysis Template to read with purpose, by learning how to read (and analyze a scene) like a writer.
To recap: the bulk of the Scene Analysis Template focuses on how a working scene creates a Story Event—or an active change of life value for one or more characters as a result of conflict (one character’s desires clash with another’s). It also applies Story Grid’s Five Commandments, which I personally consider the most valuable resource in the Story Grid universe.
To determine this, writers (as readers) can look for key elements intensifying a scene in a way that advances the plot and/or develops a character. When these are accomplished, the scene is far more likely to maintain a reader’s attention while also simultaneously giving the scene purpose in the global structure of the story.
As a writer, I’m sure you’re familiar with the famous saying “kill your darlings,” but until you understand what a scene needs in order to justify its place in the story, it’s impossible to know what darlings to kill and which ones to praise. Luckily, Story Grid’s Scene Analysis Template provides writers hoping to learn how to read like a writer (and therefore become a better editor of their own manuscripts) with practical tools and tips to help identify what makes a scene interesting, meaningful, and work.
As promised, I’m dedicating my future articles to showing you how to use the Scene Analysis Template to break down scenes that work from contemporary and successful novels.
Today, we’re going to look at the scene driving chapter one of bestselling author JoJo Moyes’ historical/women’s fiction novel, The Giver of Stars.
Summary of the Scene
The first chapter of The Giver of Stars does a marvelous job at establishing a hero, stakes, and expectations for what’s to come (character transformation and the journey ahead!).
On the opening page, we’re introduced to Alice Van Cleve, a sophisticated British native newly married to her handsome American husband, Bennett, who often admires Alice’s resemblance to a porcelain china doll. Together, they enter a sweltering meeting hall in Kentucky (Alice’s new-but-wildly-foreign-home), where several onlookers stare at Alice with judgmental glances—she’s failed to change out of her house clothes when rushed by Bennett, and Bennett, only now, realizes this and criticizes her decision (he’s clearly embarrassed).
As the meeting unfolds, a woman named Mrs. Brady shares how, in support of Eleanor Roosevelt’s initiative to educate more Americans after the Depression, their town will be organizing a group of horseback librarians to bring books to citizens in the outskirts of town. At the moment, Alice reflects on how she came to (quickly) become Bennett’s wife, move to America (her family fails to keep in touch), live with her overbearing father-in-law, and continually feels foreign in her new Kentucky home. She can’t seem to make friends with anyone and constantly feels out of place under her own roof.
When Bennett nudges Alice “out of her reverie,” Alice’s attention returns to the discussion of the traveling library. She counts down the minutes until some shocking news stirs everyone’s attention—Mrs. Brady and some others are not looking to recruit male horseback librarians. They want women. (Gasp!)
As the room falls silent, Alice turns to the person giving this shocking revelation—an outcast in the town, Margery O’Hare. Her stance and attire radiate rebel, and despite the harsh contradictions some townspeople voice about women riders, Margery snaps back with wit: “Last time I looked, God gave ’em two arms and two legs, just like the men.” (Page 20.)
This leads to Mrs. Brady trying to recruit additional women riders to accompany Margery in this venture. Despite the forced recruiting of a young woman, Izzy, most women reject the request. Meanwhile, several men strongly advocate against such an absurd idea, modelling the limited perspective of a woman’s role in society at that time by implying women should remain in the house.
Then, without warning, Alice volunteers. Bennett immediately protests, but doesn’t stop Alice from mentioning out loud that, “My husband was just telling me that he believes strongly in the importance of civic duty, just as his dear mother did,” vocally sealing her decision to volunteer (pg. 23). Before she can stop herself, Alice smiles back at Margery. There’s an instant camaraderie between the two.
With four volunteers, the meeting closes. On the way home, Bennett grumbles about his disagreement with Alice’s action. He has no idea what she thinks she’s doing, and refers to Alice as Mrs. Van Cleve twice before Alice realizes that this new name is hers.
Analyzing the Scene
A Story Event is an active change of life value for one or more characters as a result of conflict (one character’s desires clash with another’s), and a Working Scene contains at least one Story Event.
To determine a Scene’s Story Event, answer these four questions.
1) What are the characters literally doing?
Alice and her husband, Bennett, attend a town meeting. During this meeting, Mrs. Brady tries to recruit women horseback writers for their new traveling library.
2) What is the essential action (want) of what the characters are doing in the scene?
Alice wants to find her place in her new home—which includes starting a real marriage, not the half-marriage she suffers while living with her unpleasant father-in-law and husband who instinctively agrees with whatever her father in law says. Alice’s assumption of how she will fit in with her new town—how she will find her place—comes as a surprise when she volunteers as a traveling librarian, despite Bennett’s (and most of the town’s) resistance.
3) What life value has changed for one or more of the characters in the scene?
Alice (secretly begrudgingly) attends a town meeting with her husband, Bennett. She immediately feels out of place and embarrassed, which is emphasized when several onlookers give her judgmental glances, and when Bennet criticizes her inability to change her clothes before leaving the house. As the meeting unravels, Alice’s attention waivers—until Margery O’Hare declares they need women volunteers for the traveling library, not men. After most attendees protest, Alice volunteers. Bennett isn’t happy with Alice on the way home, but Alice has something new to look forward to, including a potential new friend.
4) Which life value should I highlight on my Story Grid Spreadsheet?
Some life values that could be considered for this scene explore Alice’s internal and external positions, like: Isolated to Accompanied, Lonely/Unhappy to Hopeful, or Reserved to Volunteer.
Based on my suggestions, I would probably choose Reserved to Volunteer.
However, it’s important to remember that (when writing and analyzing scenes) the exact words you choose for the Life Value shift don’t matter—what does matter is that there is a shift in the life value, particularly because of a Turning Point that causes this shift, and that the words selected reflect this,
How the Scene Abides by the Five Commandments of Storytelling
Inciting Incident: Causal. Mrs. Brady announces they’re starting a traveling library.
Progressive Complication Turning Point: Revelation. Margery O’Hare declares their need for women riders, not men.
Crisis: Best Bad Choice. Alice can continue to live unhappily and out-of-place in her Kentucky home and town, or she can volunteer as a horseback librarian and hopefully find a way to contribute, despite what Bennett and many of the townspeople (particularly men) think about female horseback librarians.
Climax: Without warning, Alice volunteers. Bennett protests this quietly, but Alice announces to the town that this is a way she can positively contribute to society. Margery approves of Alice’s decision and they exchange amiable glances. With four volunteers, the meeting comes to a close.
Resolution: Bennett can’t believe that Alice volunteered, and Alice reflects on how Margery greeted her like an old friend.
- Notice how amidst business matters discussed during the meeting, JoJo Moyes draws attention to potential antagonists, who work wonderfully in progressively complicating Alice’s internal state and external reputation. Alice pinpoints Peggy Foreman, for instance, whom she informs Bennett is, “casting spells in my direction again” (pg. 10). Briefly establishing characters like Peggy is an excellent way writers can set up problematic characters for the hero that will inevitably pay off later, without needing to dive into a mess of detail. Because passive tension builds with this short exchange, readers anticipate more problems to come—and grow curious as to how these might unfold, since it doesn’t seem Alice has done anything wrong to suffer Peggy’s aggressive glances.
Additionally, other complications weave tension into the scene, particularly ones that bother Alice even if she’s not directly involved, including: the intense heat, the crowded room, her inability to fit in, Bennet’s fear of people finding Alice stand-offish, Bennet’s constant support of his father (and not Alice), and the negative conversation several people—especially men—discuss at the mere idea of female horseback librarians (well, I’d never!).
- Don’t overlook how artfully well JoJo Moyes places details about setting within the context of Alice’s events—both through dialogue and reflection—and how this raises stakes while establishing expectations for Alice’s (and probably Izzy’s) transformation. Immediately, readers understand the sense of societal expectations in this small Kentucky town, which contain several citizens of lower income post Great Depression. Conversations about the absurdity of women working outside the home further date expectations of gender roles in this time and place, which makes readers all the more excited to follow the story’s heroine, Alice, and the eccentric, outspoken supporting character that eventually becomes Alice’s mentor, Margery. Because Alice decides to go against the grain, there’s great potential for her transformation—and a bond of friendship with a woman the public rejects.
- Depending on the genre, and in most opening chapters, you won’t find context filled with heavy backstory like we get in this first chapter of The Giver of Stars. However, when you do include backstory, it’s smart to weave it in your scene’s context with intention and style like JoJo Moyes. This can be accomplished by following JoJo’s model to 1) provide backstory that provides greater insight to character behaviors and becoming, and 2) show us backstory instead of info-dump details (in other words, share details in a way that work as beats building a scene, instead of dump a bunch of information in sentences that tell backstory with boring lines that lack visual content and ability to trigger a reader’s five senses).
The Big Takeaway
The Giver of Stars is a fantastic novel that follows the transformative arc of a group of horseback librarians, particularly that of the story’s protagonist, Alice Van Cleve, and her maturation growth challenged by various societal, relationship, and internal circumstances.
To hook a reader right out of the gate, it’s essential that this chapter sets up a reader’s expectations for Alice’s internal arc while also establishing the public and private stakes, and the antagonists and conflicts that could escalate these stakes throughout the novel. Using Story Gird’s Scene Analysis Template makes it easier to understand why and how JoJo Moyes does this; we can identify what advances the story’s plot and develops Alice’s character. By establishing a common language that helps writers, readers, and editors communicate “what works” in a scene, writers are more likely to include scene requirements into their own writing.
That’s it for this month! If you’d like to learn more about Story Grid’s Scene Analysis Template and tools, writing Women’s Fiction and/or Historical Fiction, or my writing workshops and editing services, I’d love to hear from you. Reach out to me through my website or email me directly. I can’t wait to hear from you!
Until next time, enjoy practicing how to read like a writer – and if interested, prepare for my next column’s Scene Analysis from a chapter in Suzanne Collins’ classic, The Hunger Games.
Abigail K. Perry is a Certified Story Grid Editor with professional teaching, literary agency, and film production experience. In addition to writing masterwork guides that help people learn how to write, read, and edit like a writer, she works as a freelance developmental editor/book coach and diagnostic editor, and is a monthly columnist for DIY MFA. Abigail also teaches Genre-Focused writing workshops for the genres she specializes in, which include Women’s Fiction, YA Fantasy, Upmarket Fiction, Historical Fiction, and Scripts. As a podcaster, she’s a passionate advocate for the butterfly effect stories have on the individual and world, which she shares with listeners on her podcast, STORY EFFECT.
Reach out to Abigail by visiting her website if you’re a writer looking for an editor who will help you grow as storyteller, and who has experience in differentiated instruction, traditional publishing, and film.